Time to knock your block off?

Written by Sean Fleming

Ad blockers are here to stay. Does that mean online advertising is dead? Or just that low-quality, lazy online advertising is dead? To be in with any chance of avoiding the permanent digital cold shoulder, being relevant and useful with your marketing and advertising has never been more important.

Depending on who you listen to, perhaps as many as one quarter of all internet users might be using ad blocking technology. And who can blame them? Getting followed around the internet by ads related to something you once searched for can get really annoying; it’s like being haunted by the pixels of purchases past.

It’s not just ads for things you've searched for that become a problem. The quality of some ads served by some networks leaves a lot to be desired; from the risk of malicious sites, to less harmful but nonetheless annoying pop-ups and auto-play videos. It can feel like a firehose of low-grade, low-value, irrelevance, and it’s preventing you from doing whatever it is you first visited the site for.

Add to the equation concerns over privacy and the growing number of people who want to protect themselves from prying eyes, and you soon see why ad blockers are big news.

Bad news

But it’s bad news for a publishing industry that is still adjusting to the impact on its revenues made by all things digital. But an increasing number of readers are using technology to put an end to ads being served on the pages they’re viewing.

However, it looks like an ad blocking arms race is about to get underway as publishers start to fight back. A few weeks ago the UK tech site The Inquirer announced it would start blocking ad blockers. Now the French newspaper industry has acted ensemble to add its fuel to the anti-block fire; 80% of France’s top 40 publishers have decided to make a unified stand. For some it will mean putting up the barricades and stopping ad blockers from accessing their site. Others will try to explain why ad blockers are bad news, in the hope readers will stop using them.

As someone who was working as a journalist when the internet first began to erode business models, I’ve seen first hand the problems facing the publishing industry. Advertising budgets, once the lifeline of the print world, switched online. The consequences for some were pretty grim. A lot of titles went out of business. Some survived by downsizing. Publications that maybe had an editorial team of eight or nine people, now rely on just two or three.

Online publishing still hasn’t really hit upon a revenue model that works sustainably. Paywalls work for a small minority, everyone else tends to rely on carrying advertising across their online estate. But it’s that reliance on advertising that has of late been alienating readers en masse - hence the uptake of ad blocking technology.

Do readers simply not care about the financial well-being of the publications they enjoy? That’s unlikely, although there are undoubtedly a few who cling to a misguided belief that the internet (and everything on it) should be free. But by and large most people understand that it costs to run something like a news website - from hosting costs to journalists’ wages.

Ads subtract

So why the hostility toward online advertising? It’s rare to find anyone with anything positive to say about it, in fact a former colleague of mine (an award-winning ad copy writer) recently observed that he’s written the copy for far more banner ads than he’s ever clicked on.

Well, a lot of it comes down to relevance - or irrelevance, depending on your outlook. Research commissioned by Adobe into traffic to North American websites between January 2013 and June 2016, and a survey of 1,000 US web users carried out in August, has some interesting findings.

The research found that personalised ads were a hit with 78% of web user, but only 28% think they're tailored adequately. There’s a delicate balance to be struck here, as 26% said personalisation can tip over into feeling creepy or intrusive.

Picking your moment is important too, as anyone who’s ever chosen to skip the ad served at the start of a video on YouTube can tell you. The Adobe study found ads are more likely to be favourably received by web users when they’re using social media, than if using an app, watching a video, or searching for something in particular.

Prioritise quality

There’s a lot the advertising industry could do to improve the overall experience of the consumers it serves ads to online. But even if it were to make a concerted effort to do that, a whopping 89% of people with ad blockers told the Adobe study they have no plans to uninstall them. Uphill struggle, anyone..?

But if there’s going to be a turnaround, that’s where it will start - maybe by focusing on quality and relevance. Blocking ad blockers isn’t guaranteed to make people disable them, but if they take that leap of faith you can’t give them any reasons to wish they hadn’t bothered.

Targeting audiences via a combination of great content, well-crafted emails, and supporting online assets is something we’ve become increasingly convinced holds the answer to the challenges of convincing an increasingly disengaged audience you have something valuable to say, and something they want to engage with.

Ad blockers or not, we believe you owe to yourself and to your audiences to make quality your absolute priority. That means using the right technology to deliver great campaigns, the right medium for the right audience - whether it’s a white paper or a video - first rate targeting so that no one feels like they’re getting spammed, and captivating creative work.

If that sounds like something we might be able to help you with, we’d love to hear from you.

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